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Joe Henderson Columns

Henderson: Time to get on board with transit

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Published:   |   Updated: October 10, 2013 at 11:41 AM

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How much time do you allow for the drive to work each day?

How long does it take for a trip to the beach or the ballpark? To grandma's house?

Commuters here just sit in lines of cars that get longer every day, taking forever and an hour to move a mile or two. Maybe you figure it's just part of the deal. You grow numb to what it's really costing everyone who calls this home.

So I begin today's discussion with this premise: There has to be a way to navigate this area without having to pack a lunch in the car. That's the question about 200 people will begin to tackle today at something called the Tampa Bay Regional Transportation Summit.

Yes, this affects you.

It affects us all.

***

Yeah, we have heard it all before, and it never seems to get anywhere. You can be excused for wondering why it will be different this time. My only answer is that it just feels different now. More people seem to be buying into the notion that the status quo is unacceptable.

“This is just the opening salvo,” said Hillsborough County Commissioner and all-around big thinker Mark Sharpe.

Light rail is the first thing people think when you mention mass transit, followed by the requisite knee-jerk response that anything on rails will be some government boondoggle-in-waiting if we commit to such a monstrosity.

That's putting the caboose ahead of the engine.

“We don't need to get lost in the debate of what kind of technology we will use to connect. Is it rail? Is it a bus? That doesn't matter right now. But we have to acknowledge we have a problem,” Sharpe said. “This is not just a connecting issue, but it's also one of economic impact.

“Do we want to stay an area with jobs that pay about $36,000, or do we want those jobs to be $60,000 or $70,000 or $80,000? The companies with those kind of jobs don't want to come to an area where the workers can't get around. Do we want to be left in the dust? Sitting back and doing nothing is the best way to do that.”

Although it's obvious there is a need for better ways to commute downtown from the suburbs, and from Pasco, Hernando, Pinellas and Polk counties, voters overwhelmingly said they don't want to pay more taxes for fancy transportation systems.

That's why you hear more talk about public-private investment — emphasis on the private. All Aboard Florida is a private $1.5 billion rail venture linking Miami and Orlando, scheduled to begin service in about two years.

Maybe planners here can figure out a way to get involved in that, with Tampa International Airport as a hub. The time for thinking big has arrived.

“We pay now or pay later,” Sharpe said. “There is a cost to not doing this, because the talent will leave. We'll be a region left behind; that is, unless you think we need more T-shirt shops.”

It's something to think about.

Fortunately, being stuck in traffic gives you plenty of time for that.

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